May 24, 2018
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The birds and the bees of swarms

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

Honeybees swarm. It’s a simple, basic fact of nature that at some point in their reproductive cycle, members of an active beehive respond to a primal call of nature, pack up their belongings and follow the queen out the door.

This I know having witnessed it firsthand three times over the past week.

In fact, as I write, there is a soccer ball-size cluster of honeybees hanging out on a spruce branch about 30 feet up in the air outside my living room window, and it has been there since Tuesday morning.

Over a four-day span before that, the swarm landed in the tree but later moved back into the hive.

“Honeybees reproduce by swarming,” said Erin MacGregor-Forbes, master beekeeper and president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association. “So if you have a healthy hive they will swarm, [and] we are in swarm season.”

In Maine, swarm season is normally May through July, though this spring’s wet weather may have thrown that off by two weeks or so.

According to the beekeepers association website, “A honeybee swarm is when a queen and a good portion of the worker population of bees leave the hive to find a new home.”

It’s an impressive sight.

One minute all is quiet and bucolic in the apiary, and the next there is a rapidly growing cloud of bees buzzing madly in all directions like something out of a B-horror movie.

Slowly, once the queen lands, the swarming bees alight around her until she is completely covered and protected under thousands of her subjects.

There they will stay for up to a week while the scouts — the house-hunter bees, if you will — travel hither and yon in search of new digs.

For MacGregor-Forbes, this is a magic time when an alert and lucky beekeeper can entice the swarm to stick around.

Drawing on the remarkable and groundbreaking bee swarm behavior of Dr. Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, MacGregor-Forbes explained those scout bees will deposit a glandular secretion in locations they deem ideal for relocation.

“That secretion tells the other bees ‘the hive is here,’ or ‘come here, this would be a great place to live,’” MacGregor-Forbes said. “As more and more scouts check it out, they leave their own secretions that tell everyone else that is a perfect cavity.”

Evidently, the location with the most secretions wins.

This secretion, MacGregor-Forbes said, smells much like lemongrass oil, which can be used to bait the errant bees into planned housing.

“You can create that perfect cavity,” MacGregor-Forbes said, using a single hive box with a few modifications, including a remodeled front door measuring 4 square inches.

As is true with most real estate deals, it’s all about location, location, location.

The swarming bees are looking to move out of their old neighborhood, so placing a swarm-collecting box near the original hive only devalues the whole block.

The farther they can go, the happier they are.

Other touches that create the ideal living situation include the box being placed at least 15 feet off the ground and facing south.

MacGregor-Forbes lives and keeps her bees in Portland, which means if she wants to capture a swarm, she has to find “some really cool neighbors” who let her set up the box on their property.

Now, my neighbors are among the best, but I’m just not sure any are that cool.

So when half my bees swarmed, I needed to find a spot on my own property far enough from the original hive where I could place my hastily constructed swarm catcher 15 feet off the ground — one hopes, without breaking any bones in a fall.

My best bet seemed to be near the pond — thus offering the bees the added benefit of waterfront property — and taking them away from the general direction of my neighbors.

This way, I could make use of one of the remaining derelict farm trucks here on the farm as a raised platform.

So very early in the morning — as in 5 a.m. and pre-coffee — I loaded the four-wheeler with the box, a ladder and a healthy supply of bungee cords and set out with Corky, my dog, on a sort of “habitat for honeybees” adventure.

After using the ladder to get the swarm box and me up and onto the roof of the truck, I carefully placed the ladder on the roof and then put the box on top of the ladder, giving me the needed 15-foot elevation.

Then the bungee cords were added to keep the penthouse hive in place.

Three thoughts were running through my head during this balancing act:

• Would the bungee cords detract from the bees’ idea of the perfect cavity?

• What would happen if they picked that exact moment to move in?

• Was this whole operation part of some sort of beekeeping hazing akin to snipe hunts and cow tipping?

Regardless, the box was placed, and all that was left to do was leave some bait.

With no immediate access to lemongrass oil, MacGregor-Forbes had given me a great alternative — lemon-scented furniture polish. A few quick sprays, and the job was done.

Since the ladder was now in use, I jumped down from the truck and surveyed the results.

Heck, if I were a bee, I’d move in. I mean, it sure smelled good and the view is terrific. Given that a bee’s sense of smell is 40 times stronger than a dog’s, I hope they concur.

Until Seeley’s groundbreaking work, much of swarm behavior understanding was taken from observations made decades ago, MacGregor-Forbes said.

“Swarms were considered bad things because the bees took the marketable honey,” she said. “But people who love bees think it’s really cool.”

Meanwhile, back at the original hive, the remaining half of my worker bees continue to toil gathering nectar and pollen. At the moment it’s unclear whether there is another queen in there or anarchy rules.

Just in case, my beekeeping friend Carl — who went above and beyond during the first two swarms in talking me off the ledge — ordered me a new queen for the old hive. On Thursday she and her attendants arrived.

Soon we’ll move them into the original hive and maybe, just maybe, they’ll stick around for a while.

But if they decide to swarm, I have to agree with MacGregor-Forbes — it is pretty cool.

And the Lemon Pledge is within reach.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She may be reached by email at

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